With Irish and Scottish heritage, Aileen O'Sullivan's family placed great stead on storytelling. Dunedin-born O’Sullivan quickly learned that “if you’re going to tell a story, make it a good one!" The ethos has guided her work as a director. Later she would take seannachie — Gaelic for storyteller — as the name of her production company.
O’Sullivan’s future profession didn’t exist when she left school in Dunedin in the early 60s; and traditional careers for women of teacher, secretary or nurse held little appeal. A year spent as an American Field Scholar in El Paso, Texas introduced her to other international students expecting to further their studies. She enrolled at Canterbury University, graduating with a BA in politics in 1965.
O'Sullivan's first daughter was born in 1967, when she was 24. There would soon be four children under five. She gained practical journalism experience writing netball reports for The Press. The family moved to Wellington, and she began to look for creative outlets as her children grew older. Helping a kindergarten teacher friend act out stories with her class reawakened her interest in performance and directing.
O'Sullivan trained to become a teacher but was wary of overcommitting herself as a working mother. Instead, she asked Radio New Zealand for a job, and began editing and packaging overnight reports from foreign correspondents, before becoming a producer on Morning Report — and also the first woman to read the news on National Radio. She credits RNZ’s sub-editors with teaching her the nuts and bolts of journalism: the importance of structure, and knowing the right questions to ask.
In 1975, she was cast as Governor Grey’s niece Annie in ambitious historical drama The Governor; she was nominated for a Feltex Award. The programme attracted political outrage at supposed overspending, but O’Sullivan prefers to remember the palpable excitement of a cast and crew telling a New Zealand story on a big scale. She also guested on soap Close to Home, and did a season as a reporter for series People Like Us.
She moved into drama at Radio New Zealand and began producing radio plays in Wellington, then Auckland. The broadcaster was starting to record local scripts, as it moved away from its roots in the english repertory tradition. O’Sullivan looked for ways to include Māori writers and actors, running workshops and eventually directing Aotearoa’s first radio drama in te reo.
In theatres a similar push to tell New Zealand stories was underway. Inspired by this, and seeking to expand her stage credentials, she arranged a three month internship at Auckland’s Mercury Theatre. When RNZ turned down her request for leave, Creative NZ offered funding for an attachment to act and direct for a year. She stayed at Mercury for two, playing the lead in classic comedy She Stoops to Conquer, and directing a succession of NZ premieres, including Renee's Setting the Table.
In 1982, Television New Zealand advertised what would be its final training course for drama directors and producers. O’Sullivan was selected for one of two directing places. The intensive three month course was run by Brian Bell; his charges were given free access to fully resourced studio and location shoots. Before it had finished, O’Sullivan was offered directing work on TVNZ’s highly ambitious new ‘supersoap’ Gloss.
She remembers it as a baptism by fire. Mastering the complexities of TV’s technical processes was challenge enough, but she was also working with a large ensemble of actors in a fast turnaround environment. The time theatre allowed to get inside a script was an unaffordable luxury, but there were compensations in working with an enthusiastic cast and crew who shone under pressure.
O’Sullivan directed on all three series of Gloss, but the production proved to be one of the final productions for TVNZ’s drama department,which closed as the broadcaster became a state-owned enterprise. O’Sullivan had never known job security, so the transition to jobbing director wasn’t traumatic. Her resume soon included a stint in Australia working on hit show A Country Practice. In 1990 she directed the "humble, talented" Billy T James for all 26 episodes of his sitcom, set in a radio station.
Although drama directing was rewarding, O’Sullivan was growing interested in the possibilities of telling stories of her choosing. She learnt the basics of documentary directing on TVNZ travel show Holiday, and built on them to add documentary to her drama directing. Her subsequent work has encompassed a variety of subjects and styles, guided by a belief that “the story is what I respond to, and then the format to suit”.
For It’s in the Genes Girls (1993) she explored nature versus nurture through three sets of mothers and daughters with prominent careers in the arts. She placed her subjects at a candlelit dinner party. As writer Deborah Shepherd observed, “private moments like these aren’t easily achieved on the screen. In this case, the spontaneity appears to be the direct result of Aileen’s decision to allow the artists to be their own interviewers”. She could have found parallels in her own family, where her daughters Rebecca, Katrina and Jessica, and son Chris Hobbs have variously had screen careers on both sides of the camera.
A globetrotting documentary about author Witi Ihimaera followed in 1995. O’Sullivan kept up her multi-camera directing skills working with Brian Edwards on a trio of Great New Zealand Showdown studio-based specials, which used hypothetical scenarios and audience participation to explore issues around family, honesty and sexuality.
In 2002, while tutoring at The New Zealand Film School, she wrote, directed and produced Spring Flames, a short film about the 1947 Ballantynes department store fire in Christchurch.
Having already worked with director Toby Mills on two documentaries (An Inside Story, The Family), O'Sullivan resumed the collaboration in 2005 for 70 minute documentary Black Grace – From Canon’s Creek to Jacob's Pillow. It was a story that found her, following an unexpected visit to watch Neil Ieremia’s dance company. Like the best stories, she had a visceral response — something went up her spine as she watched Māori and Pasifika dancers celebrate “where they come from, who they are and how they move” — a story they wanted to tell. The result won Ken Sparks an NZ Screen Award for his editing.
In 2011 she produced and directed the feature-length Ngaio Marsh – Crime Queen for TV One. Faced with the challenge of telling the story of a deceased novelist, she knew she had to “to bring life to the screen”. O'Sullivan enlisted Peter Elliott to recreate Marsh’s protagonist, gentleman detective Roderick Alleyn. They visited Marsh’s London haunts and connected with her remaining social milieu in Christchurch. Press critic Trevor Agnew called it "a masterpiece".
O'Sullivan was also one of the producers of TV movie Life's a Riot, alongside Ross and Carmel Jennings. Set in the heart of the depression, the Ian Mune-directed drama tells the story of "total maverick" Jim Edwards, who as leader of the Unemployed Workers Union led the biggest riot in Kiwi history.
Aileen O’Sullivan loves stories; hearing them, reading them, telling them. "It's been exciting and a huge privilege to have been involved in bringing New Zealand voices, Pākehā, Māori and Polynesian, to the air, the stage and to the screen”.
Profile written by Michael Higgins
'Aileen O'Sullivan: The journey from acting to behind the camera' (Video interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 24 January 2017. Accessed 24 January 2017
Seannachie Productions website. Accessed 14 October 2016
Deborah Shepard, reframing Women - A history of New Zealand film (Auckland: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2000)
'Ep 11 - The inspiring and eloquent Aileen O'Sullivan - a singular documentary maker' (Podcast Interview) Photographica Podcast website. Loaded 15 April 2016. Accessed 14 October 2016